You might be wondering what the weird title of this article is. It was actually a challenge that was set for this weeks meeting and we had to figure out what the words meant. We were split up into 2 teams and were challenged with finding out the story behind these words.
After a couple of minutes, we were able to figure out that the three words were actually a what3words address. This led us to a place at Louisiana, USA.
From this location, we could look at the place on Google Maps to give us some more clues to this place and what kind of area it is in. Using Street View, we can see that this place is some kind of industrial park/company.
From the location and knowing what type of company we were looking for, we were able to narrow down to a company called ‘Columbian Chemicals’. Searching for the company on Google didn’t really yield us any useful results except for some information about the company. However, on the sidebar there is a ‘See results about…’ link for ‘Columbian Chemicals Plant explosion hoax’. We are finally starting to get onto an interesting lead!
The first result after clicking on the relevant search from the sidebar is a Wikipedia page about the explosion hoax. We were banned from using this Wikipedia page for this exercise because it had all of the information we were looking for in one place. If you’d like a quick TL;DR about the incident, it is a great place to read up on it.
The second result down is a New York Times article about the hoax, also a great place to read up on the incident and gave us a lot of information. By using this article along with other articles and searches on social media we were able to get a pretty good picture about what happened.
Lots of news articles about the incident have recently been deleted, so it was quite difficult to find information.
People living in (and around) Louisiana were sent a text message saying “Toxic fume hazard Warning in this area until 1:30 PM Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.” After this text message went out, there was a lot of other pieces to the puzzle which combined together to make a believable story for local residents and news outlets:
- Twitter Bots spread this fake news using the hashtag #ColumbianChemicals. These tweets contained photoshopped pictures of the chemical plant being on fire.
- A Wikipedia page was created about this explosion which helped to spread around the news which contained an edited video of the plant being on fire.
- A Facebook page was used to make a fake local news group who started posting about the incident.
- Two YouTube videos also helped to create a more believable story, one of them being the plant on fire and the other of ISIS taking responsibility.
All of these different things helped to create a story which many people thought was real. This led to large news outlets picking up the story and writing their own take on the story including the fake images from social media, some of these articles made it to the front page of many large news websites.
Although nobody knows for sure, the New York Times article suggests that the hoax was a disinformation campaign from Russia which was used to test methods for spreading fake news. The knowledge from this attack probably went on to help in the Trump election.
This challenge was a real eye-opener to how easy it is for fake news to spread especially with all of the technology around us.